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When the national Colored Conventions Project (CCP) was launched at the University of Delaware in 2012, the 19th century movement in which African Americans organized for racial justice was not widely known.
More than 200 state and national conventions were held from 1830 through the 1890s, drawing tens of thousands of attendees including well-known writers, church leaders, educators and entrepreneurs. But because the records of the proceedings were scattered and not easily accessible until the CCP began transcribing them in digital form, the names of convention participants and details of their advocacy seemed lost to history.
One exception: Frederick Douglass, the famed activist, author and orator whose lifetime of advocacy for civil rights included tireless participation in Colored Conventions across the U.S.
Gabrielle Foreman, founding faculty director of the Colored Conventions Project, during Douglass Day 2019.
“Douglass not only attended, he presided over, [many of] these conventions,” said Gabrielle Foreman, founding faculty director of the CCP, at a Feb. 14 celebration of Douglass’ birthday in UD’s Morris Library.
Douglass attended his first convention even before publishing his autobiography in 1845, Foreman said, and he delivered an iconic speech some 40 years later, at the 1883 National Convention of Colored Men in Louisville, Kentucky. She encouraged those gathered for the Douglass Day celebration to consider the importance he ascribed to the conventions.
“All of us know about the power of groups working together,” said Foreman, who is also the Ned B. Allen Professor of English and professor of history and of Africana studies at UD.
The event was the third consecutive year that CCP has commemorated Douglass’ legacy on the day he chose to celebrate his birthday. Born into slavery, he was never certain of his exact date of birth.
In previous years, the UD event has featured the opportunity for volunteers to join in transcribing minutes and other records from Colored Conventions, learning how to enter them into the CCP’s database for use by scholars and other researchers. But this year, the organizers focused instead on expanding the understanding of Douglass’ life and work.
Participants were encouraged to read one of Douglass’ speeches, as well as a poem about him written by Robert Hayden and a tribute to his wife, Anna Murray Douglass, that was written by their daughter, Rosetta Douglass Sprague, in 1900. Discussion groups shared their thoughts on the readings at the UD event and at a related “read-a-thon” held that evening at the African American Museum of Philadelphia.
In addition to the discussions, UD’s celebration included a dramatic reading of Douglass’ 1883 Louisville speech by Hassan El-Amin, an actor with the University’s Resident Ensemble Players.
Hassan El-Amin, an actor with the University’s Resident Ensemble Players, performing a dramatic reading of Douglass’ 1883 Louisville speech.
Speakers from UD and the community paid tribute to Douglass, and members of the Sanctuary Choir from Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware, sang the spiritual “Ride On, King Jesus.” The festivities also featured a cake for Douglass’ 201st birthday.
Similar events were held at 55 other locations, as far away as Turkey, with the CCP event shared via livestream.
“To me, Douglass Day is about community,” said Carol Henderson, UD’s vice provost for diversity and professor of English and of Africana studies. “When we elevate one community, we elevate us all.”
Faculty, students and staff who work with the CCP continued the Douglass Day celebration at the African American Museum of Philadelphia.
The event was described as an evening to celebrate Black love stories and to celebrate love and perseverance through struggle.
The well-attended event drew participants from throughout the area and featured a read-a-thon, with multiple discussion groups taking part in intergenerational conversations. A focus of much of the discussion was on ways to apply Douglass’ 19th century philosophies to the struggles of today.
In addition, the museum hosted winners of the "Frederick Douglass Day Words of Influence Contest" for ages 10-13 and 17-21, who wrote poems, and ages 14-16, who wrote essays. Contest winners received gift cards and were invited to publicly present their work.
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